During the first symposium to address telerobotics, scientists and researchers explored the “in-space telepresence control of robotic systems on other worlds for the purpose of prioritized science and exploration activities.”
Through the past few decades the technology behind telerobotics has evolved dramatically, revolutionising how NASA and astronauts achieve complex tasks in space.
But it’s not just in space that telerobotics have made an impact. The symposium highlights that “telepresence has allowed us to extend human cognition and dexterity into a variety of extreme and sometimes hostile environments.” Those environments include the depths of the ocean, areas of intense radiation and during surgery in the medical profession.
The continued development of telerobotics from space will now extend the boundaries of NASA’s exploration, and human cognition during that process. This latest technology will offer the possibility of space travel to the Moon, Mars, and Near Earth Objects but without the “challenges, expense and risk of putting humans on hazardous surfaces or within deep gravity wells.”
In space, telerobotics will be employed in the same way that engineers accessing the bottom of the ocean use them. For many that would be a welcome progression from the robots previously employed like the Mars rover Spirit and Opportunity.
George Schmidt, an organiser of the symposium, told New Scientist reporter Jeff Hecht: “Nothing beats having human cognition and dexterity in the field.”
The challenge however with telerobotics is the need for proximity between the engineers and the robot due to the time delay. For surgeons in the operating theatre, a three hundred-millisecond delay in the process won’t pose an issue as long as it doesn’t exceed half a second.
But for NASA, sending a signal from the Earth to the Moon increases that delay to three seconds, which becomes a problem.
When you’re sending a signal to Mars that rises again, depending on positioning of the plants, from between eight to forty minutes. That’s why astronauts need to be stationed nearby on accessible planets, and in sufficient range for the telepresence to be achievable remotely.
This exciting progress in space exploration would see the first partnership between scientific exploration and human spaceflight. It could also be the key step to achieving the ultimate goal: humans landing on other worlds.
Before that becomes possible there are essential steps that need to be taken: testing the robotic telepresence on earth with varying delays, and then experimenting with telerobotics on the Moon whilst astronauts control them from lunar orbit.
Whatever comes next, there’s no doubt that this will be the way forward in space exploration of the future.
“Telepresence opens up massive opportunities for exploration,” says Daniel Lester a symposium organiser from the University of Texas at Austin. “Once you go to Venus, you can go to a lot more places,” he says. “You could go scuba diving in the methane lakes on Titan.”